Bernard Herrmann’s Remarkable, Unnerving Gift to Cinema

An overview of the career of one of America's greatest composers.

Bernard Hermann In The Man Who Knew Too Much

An overview of the career of one of America’s greatest composers.

In 1933, Alfred Hitchcock aptly delineated the potent relationship between music and films: “The basis of the cinema’s appeal his emotional. Music’s appeal is to a great extent emotional, too. To neglect music, I think, is to surrender, willfully or not, a chance of progress in filmmaking.” Indeed, music’s role in cinema cannot be understated. When used properly, music can support a story, heighten our understanding of characters, and represent the words unspoken by visual components or dialogue — it can make us understand the details, feelings, and events we don’t even know are there.

Film music exerts powerful presences on viewers. A movie score can become an enduring cultural touchstone in its own right. Most of us can hum the spine-crawling “duun-dunnns” from Jaws, faithfully recite John Williams’ various triumphant, lovely, and strident anthems in Star Wars, and instantly recognize the melancholy theme of The Godfather. (A film’s music can also provoke more personal emotional reactions: for instance, I cannot watch Black Orpheus without humming the gorgeous “Al felicidade” for days, and every time I think of “Love Theme” from Chinatown, I get a knot in my stomach.)

Most movie scores are not ingrained as a cultural or personal lexicon, however. Many scores are unnoticed, unremarkable, or a downright nuisance. Less successful scores ultimately demonstrate a distrust toward the viewer, whether they overstay their welcome, intrude on inopportune moments, or merely repeat or emphasize the characterization, mood, and plot of a film. A few exceptional composers have undermined these common tropes of scores: Franz Waxman, Trent Reznor, and, perhaps most notably, Bernard Herrmann, who revolutionized film scoring with his astonishingly visceral soundscapes and ardent belief that a film’s themes should govern the structure of its score.

Responsible for the iconic scores for Vertigo, Psycho, and Taxi Driver, Herrmann was born on June 29, 1911, in New York City and developed an interest in music at an early age, with the groundbreaking Charles Ives as one of his greatest influences. Herrmann began his career as a CBS Radio orchestra conductor in 1934, during which time he started writing or arranging music for the programs written by a young, talented Orson Welles. The two men famously collaborated together on the notorious  “The War of the Worlds” broadcast, and when Welles left radio to make Citizen Kane, he hired Herrmann as the film’s composer.

Widely regarded as one of the best films ever made, Citizen Kane was Herrmann’s first film score, which tends to be overlooked in comparison to the film’s script, performances, complex character study, and innovative mis-en-scene. However, Herrmann’s music is still utterly unique in its ability to render the thematic ideas surrounding the titular Charles Foster Kane, rather than simply accompanying the onscreen action. Herrmann’s score always keeps up with the film’s opposing moods: it depicts Kane’s ambition and all-encompassing craving for power with harrowing, low brass melodies, which can be heard in the film’s eerie opening sequence. Conversely, it also portrays Kane’s yearning for unspoiled childhood innocence with a lighthearted string-led theme, as heard in the film’s first beloved flashback.

One of the score’s most remarkable moments occurs during the montage of deteriorating relationship between Kane and his first wife, Emily. The montage comprises of a few brief moments of the couple at breakfast, ranging from the warmth and affection of the first snippet to their complete distance in the last. To comment on the decay and disconnect of the marriage, Herrmann varies on a waltz theme, which becomes more dissonant and haunting as the scene progresses. The montage is one of the most revered scenes in the movie, and it would not be nearly as successful had it not been for Herrmann’s ability to fluidly capture different emotions and the nuances of a troubled relationship.

While composing for Citizen Kane, Herrmann began to develop his reputation as a confident, individualistic composer. He deviated from the normal Hollywood practices and personally orchestrated his own music without requesting additional creative guidance into the style, tone, and performance of the score. Supremely confident in his abilities, Herrmann demanded uncompromising creative control in his assignments; he once boldly declared:

“I have the final say, or I don’t do the music. The reason for insisting on this is simply, compared to Orson Welles, a man of great musical culture, most other directors are just babes in the woods. If you were to follow their taste, the music would be awful… But if I have to take what a director says, I’d rather not do the film. I find it’s impossible to work that way.”

In the 1940s, the public began to appreciate Herrmann’s skill and versatility. In 1942, his scores for Citizen Kane and All That Money Can Buy (originally titled as The Devil and Daniel Webster) were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Music. He won for the latter film, which used innovative electronic effects to create the maniacal, humanly impossible violin playing by The Devil/Mr. Scratch. Surprisingly, this would be the sole Oscar Herrmann received in his stunning, decades-spanning career.

Herrmann is best known for his fruitful and often volatile partnership with Hitchcock. Their collaboration constituted eight films — The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964).

Herrmann produced original compositions for each of these films, except for The Birds, which only features electronically created bird sounds in its soundtrack. Herrmann’s approach to composition echoes Hitchcock’s own beliefs about the function of music in film: they both asserted that film music should aim to heighten and enhance the visual elements, characterizations, and action of the film, rather than simply imitate it. Hitchcock was notorious for meticulously planning every detail of his films in pre-production, but he uncharacteristically gave Herrmann much freedom with his scores, as he trusted the composer’s ability to understand and capture the film’s themes and subtext. Together, Herrmann and Hitchcock experimented with a variety of techniques to portray the film’s atmosphere and unnerving inner turmoil of the characters.

From the infectious up-tempo music of North By Northwest to the exhilarating percussion sequence during a market chase scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Herrmann aptly rendered suspense and thrilled audiences during his Hitchcock era. His standout scores of Vertigo and Psycho, however, go above and beyond the entertainment value of scores — resonant, unnerving, and instantly unforgettable, they rank among the most gripping scores in cinema history.

The hauntingly beautiful music of Vertigo is a testament to Herrmann’s subversive composing practices. Throughout his career, he used autonomous, brief phrases — instead of the standard use of the longer and recurring leitmotifs — which became manipulated and altered throughout the film. For instance, Herrmann splits the Vertigo score into a handful of stupefying, well-defined phrases, from terrifying swelling strings to stunningly hypnotic interludes. Unlike many other notable scores, Vertigo’s doesn’t contain a singular, catchy theme that viewers hum on their way out of the theater: in other words, it isn’t Psycho. The music of Vertigo is too complex; its short phrases spiral and rotate in an endless chain of dissonant tempos and major/minor circles. Viewers are subjected to dizzying highs and painfully slow lows, a musical rollercoaster that refuses to achieve any sort of cohesive resolution.

Regardless, the most famous scenes of Vertigo would not nearly be as memorable without Herrmann’s score. When Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) anxiously waits for Judy (Kim Novak) to make the final touches of her uncanny transformation into Madeline, the object of his fetishistic desire, he waits for her in a hotel room. The dialogue between Scotty and Madeline vanishes in these moments, and Herrmann’s trembling ”Scène d’amour” takes its place. The theme’s harmonically rootless crescendo reaches its climax once Judy finally emerges as Madeline in a hazy green halo, resulting in one of the most passionate and overwhelming interactions between music and imagery in any movie, period.

The music gives deep insight into Scottie’s emotionally unbalanced mind; we are cognizant of his simultaneous erotic desires, anxiety, and deep relief without any dialogue. With the distressing  “Scène d’amour,” Herrmann also enacts one of the film’s central themes: despite our stubborn persistence, we can’t recreate the past.

A discussion of Herrmann’s remarkable contribution to cinema would be incomplete without acknowledging Psycho. The film was made at a point in Hollywood history where many composers adopted more pop and jazz styles into their scores, and Herrmann’s decision to solely use strings to create a tense, eerie soundscape was unconventional and risky. However, his inventive score went on to achieve widespread recognition and omnipresent imitation within cinematic horror.

The film’s “shower scene” wherein Janet Leigh’s Marion gets murdered by an anonymous attacker is arguably cinema’s most famous moment ever, in large part to the scene’s innovative editing and scoring. Herrmann uses shrieking, jabbing violins to underline Marion’s complete terror and lack of agency, which forces the viewer to get inside the head of the film’s characters. Ironically, Hitchcock originally wanted the scene to be devoid of music entirely, believing that it would be more effective to hear Marion’s helpless screams and the jabs of the knife. Herrmann eventually played the cue for Hitchcock, who immediately approved it. Herrmann reminded the director of his prior instruction to not score the scene, to which an impressed Hitchcock replied, “Improper suggestion, my boy. Improper suggestion.”

Hitchcock and Herrmann’s relationship was not always so diplomatic. After a decade of working together, their relationship abruptly ended during the production of the 1966 film Torn Curtain, a critical failure starring two powerhouses, Julie Andrews and Paul Newman. The two men disagreed over the film’s music — Hitchcock wanted a more timely pop-influenced score, but Herrmann continued to create a more old-fashioned score on his own terms. Hitchcock demanded Herrmann change the music, violating Herrmann’s unrelenting insistence on control and personal integrity in his work. Herrmann ignored this request, which prompted Hitchcock to fire the composer and replace him with John Addison.

Before his final collaboration with Hitchcock, Herrmann’s career had begun to pivot. From the late ’50s to the mid-’60s, he composed a lot for fantasy films, including Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960), Mysterious Island (1961), and François Truffaut’s dystopian sci-fi adaptation Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Deeply personal, intense, and wondrous, Herrmann’s score for Fahrenheit 451 is strings heavy and augmented with harp, xylophone, and childlike glockenspiels. The score ranks with some of his finest work and even inspired Beatles producer George Martin.

In his later career, Herrmann also collaborated with some of Hollywood’s new talent, namely Brian de Palma and Martin Scorsese. After working with De Palma for the Hitchcock-influenced Sisters (1973) and Obsession (1976), Herrmann was asked to score Taxi Driver by Scorsese, who wanted the film to have the same feel as Vertigo and Psycho. Herrmann initially declined the offer, stating that he didn’t “do films about taxi drivers.” Scorsese then sent the script to Herrmann, and he finally agreed to compose the film. He finished the score’s final recording sessions only hours before his death of a heart attack in the early hours of Christmas Eve 1975 at age 64. Scorsese dedicated the film to his memory.

As Herrmann’s final opus, the score of Taxi Driver oscillates between two themes: one, a foreboding and dissonant crescendo of horns and snares, the other, the lonely yet romantic languor of a single saxophone. Like Vertigo’s score, the inclusion of both themes allows viewers to get into the headspace of Travis (Robert De Niro), a man too isolated to express himself fully. The title sequence plays the two themes to demonstrate Travis’ (Robert De Niro) already deranged state of mind; it begins with the first unsettling theme to accompany eerie images of a taxi cub engulfed in smoke before transitioning into the melancholic sax theme when we see the pair of Travis’ restless eyes search back and forth.

Herrmann’s music supports the onscreen images, but it also presents a counterpoint: the sax theme evokes an individual alienated from his surroundings, though its underlying romanticism offsets Travis’ disdain for the decaying, sleazy New York streets. This opposition within one medley of Herrmann’s score reappears when Travis first spots Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) in the streets, with an accompanying monologue: “I first saw her at Palantine Campaign headquarters at 63rd and Broadway. She was wearing a white dress. She appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess, she is alone. They… cannot… touch… her.” Here, Herrmann conjures a near heavenly sense of hope for Travis in the city he despises — yet we know this feeling is fleeting from the anxious percussion theme, which presents a forlorn man imprisoned by his own environment.

While the music of Taxi Driver may incorporate a distinct jazz influence, the score is still unequivocally Herrmann: he molds the theme’s different sections in varied tempos, tones, and volumes to fit the mood of the film and render character traits not altogether obvious from the film’s visual diegesis. In the 1992 documentary Bernard Herrmann: Music At The Movies, Scorsese himself encapsulates Herrmann’s artistic tendencies with, “His music is like a vortex. It goes deeper and deeper… it has a feeling that it never comes to completion, and it starts all over again. Just when you think it’s finishing, it starts all over again. It’s like this whirlpool, a vortex — an emotional one, a deep psychological one… His stuff is universal.”

In many ways, Herrmann was a quintessential artist. As a romantic outsider compared to the rest of Hollywood, Herrmann’s tempered disposition refused to conform to anybody’s vision but his own, at the risk of unpopularity or even souring a legendary, eight-film-spanning collaboration. However, audiences can’t help but be thankful for his uncompromising demeanor and musical tendencies, which resulted in riveting film moments and a deeply impactful contribution to film history.

Darby is a student who loves Jack Black and Nastassja Kinski's pink sweater in Paris, Texas.